Foreign Aid Is Not the Answer to Afghanistan’s Woes
In fact, it could make them worse.
Last month, the United Nations put out a funding appeal asking for more than $5 billion of aid for Afghanistan, the largest such appeal ever for a single country. Since the Taliban took over last August, the country’s economy has crumbled and its currency has lost about 20 percent of its value. The evacuation of foreign humanitarian workers and the freezing of government funds by Western countries that refuse to recognize the Taliban government set the stage for the crisis, and an especially untimely drought have made matters worse.
Half of Afghanistan’s population now faces acute hunger, and as many as 9 million are on the brink of famine. Odds are that the current humanitarian crisis will soon have a death toll far greater than the 20-year Afghanistan war. Despite this, it would be a great mistake to accede to the U.N.’s request for funding.
It’s not that foreign aid is wasteful (though it can be), or that we do not have an international responsibility to help those in need (we do). Rather, I would argue that Afghanistan’s particular situation cannot be solved by foreign aid, and that in fact, foreign aid in all likelihood would make matters worse.
What then makes Afghanistan such an exception?
One might think that the answer could be the Taliban regime, and the horrors and oppression it is inflicting upon its own population. This would be a partially correct—but incomplete—answer. Most Third World countries are either dictatorships or highly flawed democracies. That has never stopped the West from providing foreign aid, as it is generally recognized that providing foreign aid to a country is not the same thing as endorsing the actions of a government. The US and its allies have even provided humanitarian aid to North Korea.
There are two crucial differences between the Taliban regime and Kim Jong-un’s: The first is that there is no internal power competition in North Korea. There are no opposition parties, nor any obvious leader who could step in in the event that Kim Jong-un’s regime were to fall. A collapse of North Korea’s regime would almost certainly result in a power vacuum, with unpredictable consequences. Thus, even if the humanitarian aid does help keep Kim Jong-un in power, it may be worth it at least for the time being.
This is not the case with the Taliban. In fact, despite its brutality, the Taliban has faced open protests. We know that the regime has almost no support among the population in the capital of Kabul, nor in Panjshir and surrounding areas. It also helps that millions of Afghans, unlike their North Korean counterparts, have access to both internet and radio that can be used to coordinate resistance and get information from outside the country.
In short, the Taliban can still be destroyed. They have been in power for only a few months, and their hold on power is weak, completely unlike North Korea or in fact most other dictatorships. A famine could very realistically topple the regime.
The Taliban came to power because of its ability to rally tribes and, in particular, tribal leaders to its side. In a perverse way, the Taliban government is “governing by consent,” except not by the consent of the average Afghan citizen but rather by the consent of these powerful local leaders.
What might persuade these leaders to withdraw their support? A mass famine just a few months after the Taliban takeover, caused by misrule (and the international sanctions prompted by that rule) might do the trick. While tribal politics is a tricky subject, it’s easy to imagine it would be hard for tribal leaders to explain to their subjects why they are supporting a government that is letting them starve.
While tribes may not be an ideal form of government, the existence of the tribal system also ensures that, if the Taliban were to fall tomorrow without a successor government in place, (most of) the country would not descend into anarchy. Alternative power structures exist. The same is not true for North Korea, which likely would descend into anarchy if something were to happen to the ruling Kim family.
The other difference is, of course, access to nuclear weapons, or, for that matter, any kind of military that could threaten another country. Even if it were possible to starve out North Korea, there is no telling what kind of last ditch measures the regime might take to either hold onto power, or get revenge against those countries they deem to have wronged them. The Taliban can hardly be said to pose a threat to any other country, and certainly no Western country, as internal strife keeps them busy.
Crucially, however, these differences are temporary. If the Taliban is allowed to stay in power, it will inevitably consolidate that power. It will hunt down real and potential resistance fighters and leaders, ensuring there is no domestic movement that can take control of the country if the regime were to fall. The first target would be the National Resistance Front, which even now is just barely holding out in pockets around the Panjshir valley. If the NRF were to be truly and permanently wiped out, the odds for a regime change get dramatically worse.
Once its power is fully consolidated, the Taliban will be able to return to supporting and harboring terrorists who can then attack other countries from their safehold in Afghanistan—exactly what the U.S. wished to prevent when it first invaded in 2001.
Of course, the United Nations and other proponents of providing humanitarian aid to Afghanistan stress that the aid would not be given to the regime or used to help the regime. That is a nice thought, but in reality, it does not work that way. It is extremely unlikely that the Taliban would allow humanitarian aid to be distributed without its input. The U.N.’s track record when dealing with corrupt, totalitarian regimes is not the best.
But even assuming the U.N. could distribute aid based on need and not based on where the Taliban believes the aid should go, it is a fact that the Taliban regime relies on the passivity of the Afghan people. This passivity is only aided by the assurance that, no matter how evil their government may be, they will always have their basic necessities provided by the international community.
Should the United States and other countries agree to the U.N. request, it risks saving the Afghan people today, only to condemn them to generations of Taliban oppression.
That is not to say that nothing can or should be done. First and foremost, a plan needs to be drawn up to deal with the massive refugee flows that are already beginning to stem from this famine. Europe will not tolerate another refugee crisis like the one in 2015 that saw more than 1 million asylum seekers arrive on its shores. To avoid this, refugee camps need to be set up in neighboring countries, allowing starving Afghans to escape without the help of refugee smugglers and without overwhelming First World nations. These camps need to be financed by wealthy nations (as no neighboring country has any chance of shouldering the cost). This is also the only way to provide aid and keep it from falling into the hands of the Taliban. Furthermore, these camps could ideally serve as bases to organize the resistance against the Taliban.
Other than in these camps, aid should be provided only to the provinces not controlled by the Taliban, and ideally administered through the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, to help it build support among the Afghan population. The message should be clear: Join the resistance and overthrow the Taliban, and no one in your province will starve. Accept Taliban rule, and you are on your own.
As unfortunate as the current situation is, humanitarian aid will only worsen the prospect of Afghanistan overthrowing the Taliban and building a future as a stable democracy. For the sake of Afghanistan, the West must turn down the U.N.’s request for humanitarian aid.
John Gustavsson is a conservative writer from Sweden and has a Ph.D. in economics.